SpaceX CEO and chief technologist Elon Musk, speaking at a NASA press conference, says the company will start efforts to recover the used Falcon 9 core stage on the next flight. He also released details on a new version of the crewed Dragon capsule.
The next launch of Falcon 9 is the first flight of a substantial upgrade to the rocket, called version 1.1 (v1.1), which incorporates major changes to the engines and fuel tanks.
"The first stage will continue in a ballistic arc and execute a velocity-reduction burn before hitting the atmosphere just to lessen the impact," says Musk. "And then right before splashdown of the stage it's going to light the engine again."
Musk stressed that he does not expect success on the first few attempts, but that in "the middle of next year" the company hopes to land the core stage back at its launch pad. SpaceX is currently flying the Grasshopper, a Falcon 9 engine and tank assembly that takes off and lands vertically, but testing has not advanced to the point where it resembles a real-world launch.
In addition, Musk announced a "substantial upgrade" of the Dragon crew capsule, dubbed the Dragon v.2, especially outfitted for propulsive landings. The new Dragon, which Musk says he hopes to formally unveil later in 2013, will relocate Dragon's thrusters from the bottom of the capsule to the sides, and have retractable landing struts. All capsules built to date, including current versions of Dragon, have landed using parachutes to slow their velocities. A propulsive-landing capsule could greatly lessen the structural stresses of landing, making reusability easier.
Musk has consistently declared the goal of SpaceX to develop a fully reusable launch vehicle. SpaceX declined further comment.